Houseplants

The Golden Rule of Watering

So many gardeners complain they have a hard time correctly watering their houseplants. Yet it is so easy! Just remember the Golden Rule: water deeply enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again.

Works 99% of the Time

The Golden Rule works on 99% of indoor plants because it automatically takes into account the needs of each one. What novice gardeners don’t always understand is that the soil of each plant dries at a different speed. Thus, the potting mix of a florist’s hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) may be bone dry in just 3 or 4 days, while an African violet may take 7-8 days and a cactus, 2, 3 or even 5 weeks. And the technique even takes into account the plant’s growth cycle: the same plant may need watering after 8 days in summer when it is growing rapidly, but only every 90 days during its winter dormancy. The Golden Rule again? Couldn’t be simpler: wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water thoroughly.

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Other Methods

By “dry to the touch”, I mean that you have to literally stick your finger into the mix, ideally to the second digit. If you don’t like getting your finger dirty, you can learn to weigh the pot: when soil is almost dry, it weighs much less than when it is moist. Some people are whizzes a pot-weighing! You can even go by eye: dry soil is lighter in color than moist soil. A warning though: judging watering needs from the color of the soil is most effective in the case of small plants because their root ball is smaller and dries out fairly equally. The soil in a large pot can be dry on the surface and still very wet deeper down. That’s why, for larger plants, checking with a finger or weighing the plant is more effective.

Every 3 to 4 Days

Note that you can’t water plants on a schedule. The “I water only once a week” gardeners will lose most of their plants over time. If you check your plants every 3 to 4 days and always apply the Golden Rule, watering only those that are dry and watering thoroughly when you do, you’ll find yourself with the greenest thumb in town!

This text was first published on this blog on December 6, 2014. It has been revised and the layout updated.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

13 comments on “The Golden Rule of Watering

  1. Maryl discuillo

    If you have a deeper pot, say 1 or 2 feet, how can you stick your finger down to see if moist- it won’t reach. How far are you supposed to go before it is determined it is dry enough to need water? Do u feel the meter readers work? How far down do I put the meter reader? Appreciate your advice!

    • Mathieu Hodgson

      If the first inch or two are dry, you should water, it generally means the lower portion is dry as well. Water moves up in soils by capillarity. Stick it in as deep as possible and in multiple spots, if possible, to get an accurate reading.

  2. Is ‘neglect’ a technique? It works for me.

  3. I am new to this site. Is there a place I can ask questions and folks will respond?
    I have a very leggy old orchid I was just given by someone moving away. It needs help.

    • Bill Russell

      This blog has a great search engine. Click on the magnifying glass at the top left, type “orchid”, and you will find a number of helpful articles. Hope this helps.

      • Appreciate your comment, but I have a sort of unique issue. My orchid is likely over 15 years old and has never been repotted. I just inherited it. It is very leggy. The pot is over 12 inches in diameter. It has gorgeous blooms. I looked thru all of the articles that came up. None of them address what I need.

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